...there is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel ... Han’s glorious treatments of agency, personal choice, submission and subversion find form in the parable.
This is Han Kang’s first novel to appear in English, and it’s a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions ... The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience.
Han’s striking language has a purity, especially when it touches into the deep melancholia that is part of South Korea’s modern inheritance, in its explorations of the psyche in flux ... a remarkable novel with universal themes about isolation, obsession, duty and desire.
...this is a deceptive novel, its canvas much larger than the mild social satire that one initially imagines. Kang has bigger issues to raise — the effects of childhood abuse, the damage caused by loveless unions, the patriarchy that victimizes both men and women, and finally, the question of whether women have claim to their own bodies.
Looked at closely, the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom. Studying the thirty-four endorsements again, and the praise after the book won the prize, it occurs to me there is a shared vision of what critics would like a work of 'global fiction' to be and that The Vegetarian has managed to present itself as a candidate that can be praised in those terms. Ideologically, it champions the individual (woman) against an oppressive society (about which we know nothing, except that it seems 'worse' than our own). Emotionally, it allows us to feel intense sympathy for a helpless victim, which is always encouraging for our self-esteem. Aesthetically, it offers moments of surrealism—typically in the wife’s heated and unhappy imaginings, or the brother-in-law’s fantasies of vegetable couplings—which we can see as excitingly exotic and a guarantee of a lively imagination. In this regard, the slightly disorienting effect of the translation can actually reinforce our belief that we are coming up against something new and different.
To some degree, The Vegetarian may be read as a feminist allegory, a tale of what might befall a woman who rebels against patriarchal oppression. Beyond gender, Yeong-hye’s story extends to anyone who would say no to the order of things, anyone who senses that such order is maintained by the blood of others ... an existential nightmare, as evocative a portrayal of the irrational as I’ve come across in some time.
The effect of Kang’s prose is difficult to convey. I’ve scoured The Vegetarian in vain for a passage to quote that will illustrate how the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness even as its characters undergo convulsions of rage, sorrow, and lust .... it has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays put irrespective of nation or gender.
The treatment of her harmful behavior as idealistic can be somewhat troubling, even as it slowly becomes clear there’s far more behind her slow gravitation toward vegetal life; the nuance is literary, but slightly romanticized. And yet, by the end of the book, it’s clear that we’re wrong to romanticize, as The Vegetarian paints a confounding portrait of not one woman, but two damaged sisters seeking desperately to deal with the violence of living in their world.
Kang presents her heroine’s metamorphosis crisply and dispassionately, although there are lapses into mood-shattering melodrama ... It’s easy to imagine that in a society as restrictive as Kang’s South Korea, this novel could seem especially daring. For Western readers, what’s more shocking is the unapologetic sexism against which the heroine rebels.
...in dreamlike passages punctuated by bursts of startling physical and sexual violence, Kang viscerally explores the limits of what a human brain and body can endure, and the strange beauty that can be found in even the most extreme forms of renunciation.
The Vegetarian is a sharply written allegory that extends far beyond its surreal premise to unexpected depths. The translation by Deborah Smith is by turns elegant and coarse. The narrators are perfectly pitched to their individual voices; they are looking for answers, or perhaps else.
By simultaneously staying out of her perspective (for the most part) and triangulating the events of the story through the lens of three separate people, the book’s tension becomes powerfully tantalizing. Additionally, the reader’s sympathy and understanding are built up, challenged, and sometimes smashed ... Han Kang has created a multi-leveled, well-crafted story that does what all great stories do: immediately connects the unique situation within these pages to the often painful experience of living.